Look Away


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Look Away
"The real horror lies behind the scenes."

From Freaky Friday to 17 Again, cinema is littered with body swap comedies, but what happens when this storyline isn't played for laughs? Assaf Bernstein's chiller merges the standard teenager-learns-a-lesson romp with the creepy doppelgänger tales seen in the likes of Us, The Brøken and Freddy/Eddy. Shy, anorexic Maria (India Eisley) is bullied at school, pushed around by a concerned by tactless father at home, and generally unhappy with her life. When she realises that the girl she sees in the mirror is looking at her and can move independently, she gets the fright of her life, but this supernatural other self soon becomes a confidante. Why not let her deal wit the outside world for a while? she suggests. It seems like a good way to escape but of course, the other's impressive confidence comes with a very different set of priorities and an absence of moral concerns.

A lesson in why you should tell your children traditional fairy tales early on in life, Look Away sees the naive and desperate Maria gradually groomed into giving this stranger access to her body, a move that is never going to end well. The real horror, however, lies behind the scenes. We know from the ultrasound scans shown over the opening credits that Maria had a twin - one she seems to have no awareness of. Did her parents want this other child? Did they fight or her? And to what extent has their experience back then influenced the way they interact with their daughter now? Though they remain in the background, Maria's eating problems gradually come to seem less like the cause of her parents' controlling behaviour and more like a reaction to it. in a particularly disturbing scene, her plastic surgeon father offers to 'fix' her already attractive face as a birthday present. He wants her to be perfect - on his terms.

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There are interesting themes here around girls' ownership of their bodies and the proprietary way that US society encourages fathers to view them. The undercurrent of sexual tension between Maria and her father is brought to the surface when the mirror girl decides to flirt with him - the only point at which she, too, seems out of her depth. Unfortunately this difficult territory is handled in a rather ham-fisted way. An early scene in which Maria sits on a plainly uncomfortable countertop to masturbate so she can watch herself in the adjacent mirror sets aside any realistic interest in her character - even her developing sexuality - in favour of titillating viewers. A later scene in which the mirror girl strips is all about the male gaze and perpetuating the fantasy that teenage girls secretly possess an insatiable lust for older men - rather than, for the most part, finding anyone over 30 repulsive. This objectification goes way beyond what's necessary to introduce the mirror girl and position her as deceptive. Furthermore, it directly associates the confident assertion of female sexual desire with evil. It's hard to tell a story that has positive value for modern teenagers when rooting it in this Medieval way of thinking.

At best clumsy, this approach to sexuality is all the more disappointing because it detracts from what is otherwise a fairly effective thriller with a good understanding of other aspects of teenage life. The complicated relationship between Maria and her best friend is well drawn and both young actresses acquit themselves well, even when the dialogue is clunky. There's an interesting romantic subplot which touches on other aspects of Maria's vulnerability, as she seems ready to develop an intense emotional attachment to anyone who's nice to her.

How did she find herself in this situation? That question haunts the film throughout. A delicate performance by Mira Sorvino as her mother gradually reveals a parallel streak of loneliness, with both trapped in a household where they seem to have no power. This paves the way for a powerful final scene that really elevates the film - though, sadly, some viewers seem to hate it precisely because it breaks with, and problematises, the conventional body swap story format.

This is an interesting film whose serious problems shouldn't be allowed to eclipse the good work on display. Nevertheless, you may find it uncomfortable to watch, and not always in a good way.

Reviewed on: 10 Apr 2019
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The life of an alienated high-school student is turned upside down when she switches places with her sinister mirror image.

Director: Assaf Bernstein

Writer: Assaf Bernstein

Starring: India Eisley, Jason Isaacs, Mira Sorvino, Penelope Mitchell

Year: 2018

Runtime: 103 minutes

Country: Canada


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